Saturday, 28 May 2011

Dance for Parkinson's

ENB Learning: Dance for Parkinson's Open Sharing Afternoon, Markova House - reviewed on 28th May

Since October 2010, English National Ballet has hosted a dance project for people with Parkinson’s at their home in Kensington. On Saturday 28th May I joined participants in its last class. Feeling tired and a little apprehensive, I wasn't sure what to expect. But when I arrived, the atmosphere was fantastic; everyone was warm and welcoming and the ballet studio was buzzing with excitement. And so, in this inspiring and imposing setting, with mirrors, dance posters and photos lining the walls, we sat on chairs in a circle ready to begin.

Led by English National Ballet Dance Artists, the class started with setting up the body’s posture. We woke up our feet and legs, pushing the toes and heels into the floor. Then taking some deep breaths, we began using our voices, making sounds of whoosh and mmm to activate the diaphragm and larynx.

We moved on to typical dance class exercises. We did isolations of the head and shoulders and extended the arms overhead in port de bras. We tap-danced, making rhythms through stamping our feet and clapping our hands. We twisted our backs and held our arms in ballroom dance poses. Imagery was used to make the movements more understandable – creating an oval frame around the face, reaching into a pocket, moving the feet like machine guns.

Later, the chairs were moved away and we danced the tango – stepping forward, back and side opposite a partner. We also travelled across the floor in different pathways, using marching and jazzy heel-toe walks. We even performed a Mexican wave of arm movements rippling across the whole group.

Inspired by English National Ballet’s upcoming production of Strictly Gershwin, the session was accompanied by its fabulous music. We sang ‘lady be good’ and 'strike up the band', using the emphatic gestures of Broadway singers. Its vivacious rhythms added fun, energy and dynamism to the movements.

This session was the culmination of a five-week extension project based on Strictly Gershwin and funded by City of Westminster. The original 12-week course was based on the themes and characters from the ballet Romeo & Juliet. Roehampton University researchers Ashley McGill and Dr. Sara Houston followed participants through these 12 weeks and found the dance classes gave numerous benefits to the Parkinson's sufferers. The final part of the sharing afternoon gave guests and participants the opportunity to hear the results of the research.

Typically restricted to slow, rigid movement, after the English National Ballet course, participants were able to perform flowing and continuous movements. They increased the length of their stride, developed better balance and showed more co-ordination between arms and legs. Spinal mobility was improved and reach distance increased. All of this made general day to day activities easier.

Participants described the course as 'uplifting' and 'joyous' and such pleasure was evident in their facial expressions. It was an opportunity to meet up and socialise with other people with Parkinson's, reducing feelings of isolation. Conversation before and after classes ranged from coping with the disease to what was on TV. Imagination and creativity was stimulated, and participants came together with each other, feeling determined to perform the dance movements. Participants also had the chance to see English National Ballet in rehearsal and performance. This was enjoyable, interesting and made participants feel connected to the company and its work.

The overwhelming message of this project was that through art, not only can debilitating disease symptoms be improved, but feelings of well-being can be gained. The simple pleasures of moving, music, being with other people and feeling part of a major ballet company make this a wonderful and fun project which is clearly invaluable to its participants.

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